Broadening Your Musical Horizon
In an education system full with the hoops of prescribed repertoire: first year, one baroque concerto; second year - two contrasting Popper studies and a Bach Cello Suite. It can be easy to live your life inside the comfort zone of our standard, well loved, western classical repertoire. But what wealth of opportunities and possibilities can be found if we take a step just outside of our box?
One such cellist, who's climbed out and tried a fresh perspective is British Indian musician, Meera Raja. Although her college CV is filled with the traditional stepping stones of any cellist - National Children's Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra, Junior Royal College, Royal College Undergraduate and finally Royal College Masters - her musical influences have been anything but. From joining her Grandmother in Bhajans (Hindu devotional songs) with her finger cymbals, to a house surrounded with everything from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, traditional classical music to singing songs in Swahili, Meera has always had a wealth of musical influences to draw inspiration from. Following a performance from the school's cello teacher in a class assembly, Meera was hooked and after battling her brother in Karate for the chance to learn, there was simply no stopping her. Now a year after graduation, Meera is embracing the musical world in its entirety, performing not only classical repertoire with her piano trio, Trio Rouge and the Chineke! Orchestra but expanding her musical horizons collaborating with musicians such as Soumik Datta, Kuljit Bhamra and the acting world.
It was great to catch up with Meera a few weeks ago and pick her brains about what it takes to explore the music world outside of our conservatoire box.
What first inspired you to start infusing Indian music with the traditional western classical style?
I think that’s a tricky one because I’m using elements of Indian classical music but I wouldn't say it's “Indian classical music”, it's my own take. Indian classical music is very, very complicated and I'm not trained in it! People train for years - much like we do in western classical music - to understand it, it's all to do with singing and microtones. One of the main differences between the two is that Indian classical music has no harmony, there's no such thing. If you have a piece that goes on for an hour improvised, it will all be in the same key. It's the decoration that makes it beautiful! You have the drone, but it won't change or modulate, you just stay in that one raga. When I was thinking about the Bach Cello Suites and trying to infuse the two styles, it obviously didn't work because Bach modulates! I did a lot of my own research but the more I looked into it, the more confused I became. All I wanted to do was express how the music made me feel. I feel so connected to this style of music, just as I do when I play Brahms but I feel torn because I feel in the middle of these influences so I'm trying to create something that's not "Meera plays Indian music on the cello" but that's, "Meera takes on everything she's experienced on the cello". It would be insulting to Indian classical musicians if I was sliding around on the cello and passing it off as Indian classical music. It's intricate and I'll hold my hands up and say I wish I was, but I'm not there. I can appreciate it, it's what I feel and that's ultimately what I'm projecting in my cello playing.
Since exploring the world outside our traditional learning what's been your highlight?
I'm a massive fan of collaborating with people that aren't musicians. I got a lot out of touring a play, "A Passage to India". It was composed by Kuljit Bhamra for solo tabla and cello. The style Kuljit had composed it in was that if a western cellist was to perform, they could read it and play. He originally wrote it for a hybrid Indian cello with five strings but then I ended up being the cellist so I really had to play with my sound to get the right effect. Even though I'd long been exploring this sound world, it was really enjoyable to have a project where I need to focus on this type of music in a performance setting. It was a really good opportunity as a musician to push myself. In music college you're trying to work on your cello in the western style with this Russian technique of big sound and we worked incredibly hard at it but then to work on something that is the complete opposite? It was quite difficult to get your head around. When I do my little mash ups of things, it's always about how I instinctively feel, for example when I underscored a production of Othello. I don’t know Othello that well but it’s so cool watching actors read through their script and you might not know exactly what’s happening but you’re playing what you feel – it totally works! My instinct was completely correct even though sometimes I had no idea what was going on. It’s collaborations with other people that I just love and it’s so easy now with social media to reach out and find new works.
You’ve recently started recording the Bach Cello Suites with Indian influences, how have you found the process?
I’ve learnt that it’s really important as a musician to be open minded and flexible with your technique. If I was trying to play Bach as I play Khachaturian it’s not going to work. At conservatoire you put pressure on yourself and put yourself in a box to be the best but when you come out you need to be your own artist. It's difficult when you're facing deadlines with studies and I'm grateful for the solid set up I have but now I can afford to play around and find my own sound. For example, the slides are difficult on the western cello due to its angle and we’re trained in semitones where as in this style there are no semitones! It’s very vocal, it can be difficult to create the same sound world. Luckily cello is easier as it’s so close to the human voice.
What is your advice to someone looking to experiment outside the realms of traditional classical music?
Do it! I think it’s so important as a musician to push yourself. I mean I have this thing that I’m Indian but I play classical music. I always felt like I don’t belong because should I have been a Doctor – you know stereotypically! But I think it’s so important to find your own voice, even if you’ve trained one way. I always knew I wouldn’t be a soloist. I love the rep but I want to do something a bit different – that’s just how I feel. That’s how I project what I want to say with the cello and that’s not always with the standard repertoire – course it’s Khachaturian though! Even with that concerto, it’s got that worldly air about it which is why I connect so well with it. The intervals are so similar in Arabic music and Indian music along with its melody. Advice wise, definitely do it – why not? Growing up it’s always; “learn these three pieces for this grade then let’s move to the next three pieces for the higher grade”. It’s not an accurate representation of the music that’s actually out there. I mean luckily things are changing with different composers from different backgrounds coming into the curriculum but even then, I think even from a young age people should start improvising. That’s what I really admire about Indian classical music, it is all improvised and that really shows your musicianship because it’s not rooted down. Whatever you produce, you’ve done. Of course, it’s nice to read music that’s already been written but it’s not yours. You make it your own but it’s not yours. People shouldn’t be so scared to push the boundaries. Even taking music to a lesson, I feel like you shouldn’t worry about what repertoire you bring. I started doing it during masters and it’s always been a yes. Why would any musician say no? But I feel like people need to get out of the mentality of thinking I need to learn this concerto and this concerto and I feel like you come out and either you want to be a different musician and explore this music or that music – why not start it earlier? I think everyone should open their minds more – there is no right or wrong. It’s a language. It’s an expression. The way we’re taught can be so black and white it sometimes suffocates our creativity. Explore!
Meera will be performing with the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms on 24th August, previous guests of the blog Her Ensemble on 17th September and Classic FM live with Chineke! again on 22nd September. To hear more from Meera you can follow her on her Instagram.
Until next time, stay inspired!